This is my hot take for 2023, but bear with me.
While I’m not going to pose as an expert on the topic, I feel like I’ve experienced enough to have an opinion. My career so far has been:
- 1 year of office work for a public company
- 1 year of remote work for a startup, plus a few months of hybrid work for the same startup
- 2 years of growing OpenBB from 1 to 20 people, all fully remote.
Let me first go over the advantages and disadvantages of remote and office work, so that I can focus this blog post on why hybrid sucks.
First of all, let’s be pragmatic — remote works. (Before people comment, of course if you’re a factory worker or similar, this doesn’t apply).
- Increased employee retention and satisfaction: Remote work is seen as a desirable perk, improving job satisfaction and retention rates. You can check OpenBB team engagement here.
- Expanded talent pool: It allows hiring from a global talent pool, resulting in a more diverse and skilled workforce, particularly in open source, where contributors come from all over the world.
- Increased flexibility: Remote work offers employees more control over their schedules, leading to better work-life balance.
- Improved productivity: There are fewer distractions and interruptions, which leads to increased productivity.
- No commuting: Remote work eliminates the need to travel to the office, saving time, money, and energy.
- Cost savings: It reduces expenses for both employees and employers, such as commuting and office-related costs.
- Limited face-to-face interaction: Remote work reduces in-person collaboration and social connections among colleagues.
- Communication challenges: Reliance on digital tools may lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations. There may also be technical issues or connectivity problems.
- Blurred work-life boundaries: Clear separation between work and personal life becomes challenging.
- Potential distractions: Remote work environments expose individuals to various distractions.
- Challenges with collaboration: Coordinating tasks and scheduling can be more difficult remotely.
- Reduced visibility and career advancement opportunities: Remote workers may have limited visibility and access to career growth.
Remote works. It’s not for everyone, but it works. It works particularly well when the company culture is built around it. For it to work exceptionally well, it boils down to two main arguments:
- A strong leadership is necessary to keep the team aligned, motivated, and to create the company’s culture. This helps mainly with the limited face-to-face interaction, challenges with collaboration, and reduced visibility and career advancement opportunities.
- Do not track team members based on time but assess work based on output. Use meritocracy to reward the best team members and let go of low performers early. Remote work is not for everyone, and for those who cannot produce output/value to the company while working remotely, it means they weren’t a good hire in the first place. In my personal opinion, the disadvantages of potential distractions and blurred work-life boundaries come down to the employee and their relationship with remote work, instead of the company.
Sometimes someone may not be producing as much value as expected, for one reason or another. When you are working remotely, you accept that you will add value to the company, and time is no longer a measure. Thus, the emphasis on output/value becomes much stronger.
Office also works.
- Enhanced company culture: Offices contribute to a shared sense of identity and mission.
- Face-to-face collaboration: It allows for immediate interaction, fostering effective teamwork and problem-solving.
- Social interaction: Offices provide opportunities for building relationships with coworkers, enhancing camaraderie.
- Clear work-life boundaries: Physical office spaces establish separation between work and personal life.
- Mentorship and learning: In-person environments facilitate mentorship and hands-on learning.
- Improved supervision: Physical presence aids in monitoring performance and providing timely feedback.
- Commuting and transportation issues: Office work often involves commuting, which can lead to time-consuming and stressful travel, traffic congestion, and transportation expenses.
- Lack of flexibility: Office work typically follows a fixed schedule, leaving less room for personal flexibility or adjustments to achieve work-life balance.
- Office politics: Office environments can sometimes involve office politics, conflicts, or gossip that can affect productivity and job satisfaction.
- High overhead costs: Maintaining physical office spaces can be costly for organizations, including expenses related to rent, utilities, and office supplies.
- Limited geographic talent pool: Offices are often location-dependent, which may restrict access to a diverse and global talent pool, potentially limiting the variety of skills and perspectives within a workforce.
- Distractions and interruptions: Open office layouts or noisy work environments can lead to frequent interruptions, reducing focus and productivity.
Office works. Most workers are used to office work, and there’s a reason why it works so well, because it is easy for both the employee and the employer.
From the employee standpoint: The routine of waking up, commuting, working for eight hours, commuting back, and then enjoying the evening is straightforward and requires minimal scheduling or organization. The job begins when the employee arrives at the office and ends when they leave. However, it’s important to note that this fixed schedule does not necessarily guarantee peak performance throughout the entire workday.
For senior engineers, mentorship and learning opportunities may lead to context switching, disrupting deep focused work. What some refer to social interaction, can be perceived as wasting company resources. While supervision can raise the bar for average workers, top performers do not require constant supervision to excel. So if you’re aiming for top performers, perhaps supervision isn’t really necessary at all?
From the employer standpoint: Leaders and managers may find it easier to have everyone in the office for quick communication and check-ins. However, relying on in-person communication may result in less documentation, which can be challenging for new joiners. Supervision becomes simpler as managers can track attendance and check on employees throughout the day, but this can also lead to time wasted for both the manager and the person being supervised. (Plus even that supervision allowed “A day in a life of” viral TikToks to highlighted inefficiencies).
In conclusion, I’d say that your average worker will be better in the office, while your top performers will excel further in a remote environment.
The question is whether you prefer your top engineers to become 10x more productive working remotely or prefer your average engineers to improve performance by 2x. Personally, I prefer to aim for 10x productivity with top engineers and let go of average ones.
Ok, now that we’ve discussed remote and office work, let’s go over why hybrid work sucks.
People in general tend to associate hybrid work with the best of remote and the best of office, but I think that the worst of remote and office have more emphasis. Let’s go over the biggest pain points:
- Decreased productivity: When compared with remote or office, hybrid has lower productivity. This is due to the context switching associated with changing working environments. Personally, I have experienced this and found it frustrating to work until late at night, packing up and thinking about what I needed to carry for the next day, plus commuting. The next day, it took me much longer to get back into the flow of work compared to waking up and immediately continuing with the problem at hand.
- Decreased flexibility: Hybrid work offers less flexibility than remote work but somewhat more than office work. However, this flexibility is often constrained by company policies, such as designated office and remote days or specific rules regarding remote work. When the company dictates the days employees can work remotely, the flexibility becomes somewhat artificial.
- Communication challenges: As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons that office communication is a sword of 2 edges is because while in-person communication can be effective and fast, it often results in less documentation, which can impact new joiners. In a hybrid culture, this issue is so much worse, because it’s hard to get the company aligned into the amount of level of documentation necessary. Plus, when WFH days rotate across divisions and teams, individuals working remotely may suffer from a lack of context that is shared among the team in the office, leading to silos and communication gaps.
In addition to that in remote work employees can and expect to have to accommodate for different time zones but when you move people to hybrid the ones that need to go to the office will no longer adjust their times to match the ones WFH based on needs.
- Blurred work-life boundaries: Hybrid work blurs the line between work and personal life. It no longer solely involves working from home and spending time with family but also includes being at work, interacting with co-workers, and commuting. This blurring can make it difficult to establish clear boundaries.
- Limited geographic talent pool: Since you want employees to commute to the office a certain number of times per week or month, you can’t hire them from anywhere. The geographic scope of talent acquisition becomes restricted, potentially limiting access to diverse skills and perspectives.
- Many more distractions: Individuals face distractions both at home when working remotely and in the office from co-workers. PLUS, you get the distractions that come from your co-workers bringing you up to speed if something happened when you weren’t in the office the day before (similar to the additional amount of chit chat that happens on Mondays due to weekend).
- Costs and commuting: You may save some money with some WFH, but often the WFH days don’t even justify going into a lower tier than a monthly subscription to public transports. So you end up spending the same, even if you travel less. This argument is less valid here in the Bay area where most people drive. Plus commuting those 3/4 days a week, is still a pain.
When we talk about the employer costs then it’s impossible to get it right. On the one hand you have too few people in the office which means you are overpaying for office space, on the other hand you cannot get everyone in. And this will always be impossible with a growing team + managing the WFH days of each team and division.
- Decreased employee retention and satisfaction: In general, people tend to lean towards either remote work or office work. With hybrid work, those who prefer the office environment may work in the office most days, using WFH as an opportunity for personal tasks and potentially being less productive. On the other hand, those who prefer remote work will aim to WFH as much as possible and may feel dissatisfied with having to go to the office for the remaining days This can create a divide and decrease overall employee satisfaction. Additionally, this is even more pronounced when everyone in the leadership works in the office, since the company tends to follow culture from leaders and will have less incentives to accommodate team members that are not in the office.
- Challenges with supervision: Physical presence in the office often aids in monitoring performance, but it becomes challenging to fairly evaluate the performance of team members in the office versus those working remotely in a hybrid setup. What is the basis that you use to evaluate them? Based on what you see when they are in the office? Do you still create ways to evaluate their output when WFH? Do you still check on them as often when the rest of your team is with you in the office? What about when you are WFH and have half of the team in the office and the other WFH? The amount of complexity that comes from managing this by itself, almost makes hybrid the worst choice.
I’m not saying that hybrid work can’t work, but my point is that people tend to use hybrid as the perfect solution between office and remote, and I don’t think it is. In fact, I think for most companies, this is a way to sweep a problem under the rug with a half-baked solution.
As an engineer, I wouldn’t be happy working in an office because I know I could contribute much more to the company by working from home. I’d be “okay” with doing hybrid work in order to continue working for the company, but I would probably start looking elsewhere due to all the aforementioned issues.
As a leader, OpenBB has started as a remote company, and as a result, we have become highly efficient at working remotely, even when dealing with a 9-hour time difference. All team members understand that they need to make compromises with their working hours to accommodate the company’s needs. So, it ultimately comes down to the type of team you are building and how committed they are to the mission, as well as how you can cultivate such a culture internally.
If your team grew accustomed to working in an office and had to switch to remote due to COVID, and you are noticing a decrease in performance, it may be that your team was not prepared to work remotely. In that case, it makes sense to go back to the office. However, if your team grew while working remotely, and you are not satisfied with their performance, let me tell you that bringing the team back to the office is a half-baked solution. Instead, it would be better to investigate the issue and implement better processes or address underperforming individuals.